For the past decade or so the photographer Richard Gilles has prowled the ever-fraying edges of the California dream. Working in the facts-only manner of the New Topographics photographers, he’s aimed his camera at some of the more obscure remnants of end-stage capitalism, mostly in the Central Valley. Home on the range? Not quite.
When the economy tanked in 2008, he made pictures of empty billboards in wide-open spaces, both on and off interstate highways. His juxtaposition of the two, one natural and the other man-induced, had the odd effect of bringing into focus the vast reapportionment of wealth that was then taking place. I say odd because this is not the sort of revelation that typically hits you out in no-man's land. The pictures appeared as strange hybrids, attuned as much to the mysticism of Hiroshi Sugimoto as to the deadpan anti-aesthetic of Lewis Baltz. Gilles called the series Signs of the Times.
Before that he photographed vehicles that had been converted to rolling houses. These weren’t mobile homes piloted by retirees – they were cars and trucks inhabited by homeless people. Here again, something unexpected happened: Instead of registering as symbols of inequality or poverty, the images seemed more a salute to the owners’ ingenuity, since many of the vehicles had been heavily customized. That, in turn, set up a quandary. Condemn the circumstances that led to the owners’ dispossession or applaud their survival skills?
Much of what draws us into Gilles’ photos rests with how he depicts subjects panoramically. Unlike the long, skinny images generated by Photoshop’s panostitch feature, Gilles’ more closely approximate what we see mentally when we view a landscape. In rural areas where the artist most often operates this is a distinct asset. It gives his photos a presence not normally afforded by wide-angle lenses, which tend to make objects appear smaller and more distant than actually are. It also lends his subjects a weight they might not otherwise have — a vital aspect since a lot of what Gilles pictures appears to be in a state of decay. None of his images are particularly large, at least not by today’s standards. The biggest measures 29 x 77 inches; most are considerably smaller, yet few require you to lean in to catch the details.
California Valley: Wonderful Today…Fabulous Tomorrow, Gilles’ latest series, shows the artist adopting a more conceptual approach, evidenced by the fact that the specific meaning of this series can only be ascertained from the story behind it. The story is about a land swindle launched with full-page ads in Life magazine. A framed copy of one of those ads, dated February 17, 1961, opens the exhibition, providing a “roadmap” for what follows. An excerpt reads: “California Valley — where your $10 reserves a 2 1/2 acre Rancho – is the heart of California…a land of fertile soil and gently rolling hills were the sun shines without smog, without fog… It has been one of the most jealously held agricultural lands in California. But now the bulldozers are carving roads and surveyors are mapping the land because California Valley has become the geographical center of two thirds of California's population.”
The plan, a mix of fraud, hype and wishful thinking, was to sell 7,200 such parcels in the Carrizo Plain, a 21,000-acre swatch of high desert 55 miles east of Atascadero. The problem, then and now, was good water, the absence of which effectively ruled out farming, cattle ranching and construction permits. Electricity, still scarce, is another problem. Most buyers, after realizing they’d been had, quickly defaulted, leaving the land to San Luis Obispo County. Today the region has a permanent population of about 400. It’s comprised, says Gilles, of survivalists, hermits, dope dealers and poor immigrants.
Gilles learned about the place the same way he learns about a lot of things: via Google, which revealed to him mysterious dirt tracks. Following a hunch (and some research) he began photographing the region, witnessing at one juncture (and at a safe distance), a police raid of a pot farm. The evidence he recorded includes nine turquoise-colored Doughboy swimming pools for which water had to be trucked in. Gilles shot these above ground pools by mounting his camera on a tall pole, approximating the aerial view that most likely got the growers busted. These he displays in a grid, along with a similar array of circles of weeds: the
sole remnants of the marijuana plants confiscated by the cops. As displayed, the true contents of these typological studies can’t be easily guessed – you’d have to be told. To a lesser degree, the same holds for a lot of other left-behind stuff: propane tanks, carpet scraps, trunks, and strangest of all, a paper globe split in two, its football-shaped segments dividing into neat paper triangles: a kind of apocalyptic origami. Photos of this detritus — displayed in floor-mounted frames and on walls (with the frames set at a 45-degree angle) – add a forensic twist to a show whose main attractions are panoramic portraits of abandoned houses, trailers, and campers, all them prosaically placed in the middle of nowhere, and for no apparent reason.
The real reasons – greed and a lack of water – pull Gilles' story into the present where the same forces and circumstances threaten to turn all of California into California Valley. The situation brings to mind Kipling’s lines from Gunga Din: “But if it comes to slaughter/You will do your work on water/ An' you'll lick the bloomin' boots of 'im that's got it.” The poem, written in 1892, was about an Indian servant who delivered life-saving water to British naval officers. In the absence of a sustained monsoon, his words may soon ring true in a different context.
In a statement accompanying the show, Gilles summed up the situation this way: “In the barren landscape of California Valley one thing is a constant. There is always a new crop of tumbleweeds and con men ready to take advantage of the desperate and gullible.”
–DAVID M. ROTH
Richard Gilles: “California Valley: Wonderful Today…Fabulous Tomorrow” @ Axis Gallery through May 31, 2015.